Harnessing diversity for better

RhaeAnn Booker uses DEI role at Metro Health to embrace different.
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RhaeAnn Booker and Thomas Pierce (DEI program coordinator) check out paperwork at Metro Health. Photo by Bryan Esler

RhaeAnn Booker always knew she wanted to work in a hospital, it just took her a while to get there — and not in the position she thought.

Today, she’s a nationally recognized diversity, equity and inclusion executive in her role as vice president of DEI at Metro Health-University of Michigan Health, a job she started in 2019 after nearly a decade in a similar position at Davenport University.

As a child, however, she saw herself at a hospital for two main reasons. One was serious (to help her blind mother see), and the other a bit less so.

“It’s a reflection of what I was exposed to; what I was seeing in media was there was prestige associated with becoming a medical doctor,” Booker said. “Along with that, based on what I saw on TV, at the time one of the most popular shows was ‘General Hospital.’ I remember all the drama and the love and relationships that were happening in a hospital setting.

“Today, when I speak to youth groups about how I ended up working in health care, I tell them I thought I was going to find my Luke.”

She speaks, of course, about Luke Spencer, one of the most famous daytime soap characters of all time, a bad boy who ended up with the daughter of a nurse.

But her path did not take her directly to health care. She went to Calvin University (then still called Calvin College), and looking back on her time in school, she realizes how narrow her perspective on health care was.

“After a while, I learned I really feel called to administration within organizations, but because of that narrow understanding of how I can contribute, I didn’t envision administration in health care,” she said.

She worked for several years at Calvin, before moving on to Davenport, where she was executive director of DEI. In May 2019, she moved to Metro Health, into a newly created position to lead the health system’s DEI initiatives.

While the position itself was new, its ethos was not new to the organization.

“This was a new position at the hospital, having recently formalized a DEI department,” she said. “But its commitment to DEI did not begin with the formalizing of an office.

“I was able to pick up the baton of work that hadn’t been titled DEI but undergirds the very foundation of this organization from the beginning.”

Before Booker joined Metro Health, the hospital had a health equity committee and an external organization working on DEI. A major initiative then was to make sure the hospital was meeting the needs of the growing Latinx population in West Michigan. Through that work, it was determined the hospital needed an employee in a dedicated role.

“It’s great to have people who are hired in different roles in the organization serving as part of a committee leading that work,” Booker said. “But as they were better understanding and meeting the needs of the Latinx community, they realized you have to put resources and staffing behind this work. That led to the development of this department and my hiring.”

Now, in her role at Metro Health, Booker sees her job as making sure DEI is a thread that runs through all aspects of the organization, impacting the work done by every person in the hospital. She knows she needs to ensure employees see how they work together to serve patients and the broader community members.

“There is certain work that happens out of this department,” she said. “But it’s also about informing the work of other departments as that thread is threaded throughout the organization. Part of my daily work is monitoring of work to ensure people are fulfilling the goals and building competencies, skills and knowledge where needed as we seek to understand diverse communities.

“That can include robust learning, development and training programs offered to the employees and physicians.”

She also makes sure individuals throughout the organization, whether its patients, employees or external community members, are being treated well and to address the situation if they feel they are not. That unfair treatment, perceived or real, might stem from a person’s race, sexual orientation, gender, religious beliefs or any number of other reasons. It’s Booker’s job to explore the situation and develop and implement a solution.

She also analyzes data the hospital uses to understand equity within the organization and figure out how to track progress and identify how to close whatever gaps there might be.

Coming from higher education, Booker acknowledges DEI is important work regardless of the industry. But it reaches a step further in health care. Everyone in a community deserves the same level of care and treatment at a medical facility, she said.

“DEI is absolutely critical, absolutely essential in health care,” she said. “I think most every individual would agree with that statement. But sometimes, to agree with that statement, you have to apply that statement to yourself.

“Lots of times when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, individuals think about the ‘other.’ How you might define the ‘other.’ Rarely does someone point to themselves and say ‘other’ is inclusive of me. That’s also how I approach my work, making sure everyone sees themselves as a beneficiary and a contributor of DEI.”

She said every person can think about some aspect of their own identity that would lead to avoiding or delaying health care. Maybe it is because they’re uninsured. Maybe they’re concerned they won’t receive quality health care because their religious beliefs differ from the majority of employees at that organization.

Often, difference is something a person doesn’t choose, she said. Sometimes that difference is something even removed from their own personal identity.

“Maybe it’s based on ZIP code,” she said. “I have no choice of my neighborhood I’m born in, but maybe there is a higher rate of folks experiencing asthma or cancer in that neighborhood.

“By something like ZIP code, we can better understand the needs of a community and proactively develop strategies for equitable care.”

Outside of any organization, Metro Health or otherwise, Booker said it is important for individuals to assess how DEI plays into their life.

“In a person’s everyday life, No. 1, just be self-aware,” she said. “We all bring ideas, lived experiences and different world views about ourselves and others. So just be self-aware in your own identity and increase your understanding of others, especially those different than you.”

For those different than you, she said, recognize diversity is not bad.

“Learn to not view diversity as negative,” she said. “A lot of us, people in general, have placed a value on diversity and on differences and, typically, that value is negative.

“That means unless you fit in my bubble, look and think like me, you are less valuable than me. It should just be viewed as different. It’s not good, bad, worse or better. It’s different.”

With different in mind, it’s about applying that view on the rest of life and figuring out how to harness the diversity for better.

“How do we leverage those differences for maximizing organizational capacities and for building unity across our communities?” Booker said. “I would encourage people to also, if they have the opportunity, to participate in some continuous learning as it relates to self-awareness in diversity and biases. It takes a commitment to continuous learning, and I hope people will access the rich learning opportunities in our community.

“And I hope that people in our community become more aware of inequities. We need more people to become more aware and more uncomfortable with the inequities we see and calling them out and affecting positive changes. That’s what we need every-day people to do in whatever they do.”

One might wonder if an end goal for DEI work is ever achievable. Won’t there always be some form of improvement to make all the time?

“For those committed to DEI, it is achievable,” Booker said, “especially if you make the appropriate commitment on the front end. When you commit to DEI, you are committing to addressing, responding and understanding human diversity in its many forms and responding to issues of inequities in many representations.

“Once you understand that, you can reap opportunities and the benefit of inclusion in the long haul. This is a journey. When you talk about achieving DEI, it’s through everyday practices and though processes.”

At Metro Health, Booker said there have been great strides in DEI and part of that success is ensuring buy-in from employees by making sure employees commit to helping build and support an infrastructure for DEI. A good sign for Booker that the organization has achieved that? DEI is one of 13 key performance indicators the hospital tracks as an organization, across all departments.

So, is the hospital world as dramatic as she remembers on her favorite soap opera?

“I will say yes; yes, it is dramatic,” she said. “But in a more purposeful way than I ever imagined. It is dramatic in a sense that it’s an environment where the people I have the honor of working with and meeting genuinely care about the patients. We know we have a great responsibility to serve and serve effectively, and as part of that, it speaks to how we interact with one another as colleagues and leaders in the organization.

“It also speaks to understanding our communities and the needs of our communities to meet those needs. So, the drama is the excitement and the steady energy associated with the importance of those needs we’re looking to meet and seeing the progress of the needs we’re meeting.”

This story can be found in the November/December 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here

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